Biographies from the Basement: Marcel Proust

Our colleague, Claudia is back with her monthly blog post about our special Biographies Collection at Kensington Central Library. Over to Claudia –

Next Friday 18 November marks the centenary of the death one of the world’s greatest ever novelists, Marcel Proust, whose magnum opus In Search of Lost Time, published in 1913, is one of those most influential literary works which seem to change the collective imaginative landscape. Proust described French high society life during the era known as La Belle Epoque, a period at the end of the 19th century which witnessed immense creativity and growth in the arts, culture and politics in France and beyond. Proust was deeply emmeshed in the glittering salon world he depicts, but as a gay man of Jewish heritage he was also outside it, and able to subject it to the penetrating gaze of one who is simultaneously an insider and ‘other’.

Our display of books from the special Biographies Collection at Kensington Central Library this month will showcase some of our many wonderful biographies of Proust, as well as some of his contemporaries such as fellow writer Emile Zola, actor Sarah Bernhard, composer Gabriel Fauré and painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

What is it, from the reader’s point of view, that makes Proust so special and makes him speak to people over a century later in a totally different society? I asked a dear friend and devoted user of our library service, who I know to be a huge Proust fan, to put into words what he means to her. I think she expresses brilliantly how a book can open an entire new world to the reader – a phenomenon that makes libraries such magical portals. Before I ‘hand over’ to her, I’d like to remind readers to check out our podcast about the special Biographies Collection, Biography Central. It’s available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, RadioPublic and Anchor and wherever you get your podcasts.

Marcel Proust – A Reader’s View

Marcel Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time is made up of seven volumes and tells the story of ‘Marcel’ (not exactly Proust, but a strange, dream version of him) from early childhood in Belle Epoque Paris to the end of the First World War and the moment at which he realises he is now ready to write the novel we’ve just read. It has an enormous cast of extraordinary characters, all of whom have some kind of impact on the formation of the writer whose experiences it describes.

It takes a long time to read Proust – but that’s the point! When I embarked on it, I soon realized it wasn’t like reading anything I’d read before and that I would have to slow down and take my time with each sentence. The narrator takes you into a labyrinth of introspection, describing the sensory experiences and emotional shifts he experiences with a depth of forensic detail that is overwhelming. Out and about in the society he longs to conquer, the narrator’s capacity for acute and often brutal observation excavates the peculiarities and contradictions in his characters. Above all and not surprisingly, Proust takes his time with every possible reflection, speculation, and with the many lengthy digressions that certainly made me feel not so much that I was seeing what he saw as that I was inside his mind. I had one of the most exciting reading experiences I’ve ever had and a revelation of what Proust was doing when I was half way through the third book, The Guermantes Way. In that volume, there is a 150-page section which describes in characteristically obsessive detail a grand dinner in Paris at which Marcel is a guest. Marcel arrived at the dinner as I was leaving the station on a train journey. People arrived, people greeted each other, went in to dinner, ate, drank, talked. Marcel left the dinner party two-and-a-half hours later as I got off the train. 150 pages. The dinner party had happened in my imagination in real time, by a fantastic coincidence the length of my train journey, and I was stunned at how brilliantly he had achieved the illusion that I too had lived it.

Proust is also very funny! The vicious Madame Verdurin, cruel and snobbish hostess of her ghastly ‘salon’ at which people are feted one moment and abused the next dislocates her jaw laughing at a bad joke. Marcel is constantly destabilised by events, reacts disproportionately to the unexpected, and puts his foot in it. A recent critic compared the Marcel of the novel to Larry David in Curb your Enthusiasm and it’s a great comparison!

I don’t know if ‘Proust can change your life’ (as Alain de Boton claims in the title of his 2006 book about him) – I know there is no-one like him and nothing like his achievement and reading it is an epic journey.

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

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Biographies from the Basement: Black History Month 2022

Our colleague, Claudia is back with her monthly blog post about our special Biographies Collection at Kensington Central Library. Over to Claudia –

At Kensington Central Library this month we have a display of books from our special Biographies Collection for Black History Month. 

We have an array of books about fascinating people from all walks of life and from all around the world – some very famous names, some less so – from civil rights activists to writers, from painters to scientists, from musicians to journalists, from inventors to entrepreneurs, and more. 

Re-acquaint yourself with resounding names like Martin Luther King, Billie Holiday and C.L.R. James, and discover people you may not have come across before, like aviator Bessie Coleman, arctic explorer Matthew Henson, surgeon Louis T. Wright and teacher Beryl Gilroy.

Biography Central logo

Alongside this display we are delighted to bring you a special Black History Month episode of our podcast Biography Central, in which we look at the life of the truly extraordinary poet, playwright, journalist, activist and broadcaster Una Marson

Our podcast is available on Anchor, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, RadioPublic and wherever you get your podcasts – so join us as we explore her amazing life.

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

Biographies from the Basement: making things

Our colleague, Claudia is back with her monthly blog post about our special Biographies Collection at Kensington Central Library. 

September’s display of books at Kensington Central Library focuses on people making things with their hands.  We’re looking into the lives of those who practiced traditional crafts including weaving, carving and pottery, which have been part of human creativity for centuries.

Handmade: A Scientist’s Search for Meaning Through Making by Anna Ploszajski

Handmade: A Scientist’s Search for Meaning Through Making by Anna Ploszajski is a fascinating memoir of Ploszajski’s exploration of the process of making things out of different familiar materials including glass, plastic, wool and clay.  Ploszajski is a materials scientist, and this gives her a fascinating insight into what is going on physically as objects emerge from processes of heating, moulding, cutting and bonding. Did you know, for example, that without the addition of limestone, glass would be soluble in water, or that the transparency of clingfilm is due to the random arrangement of its molecules?

She writes so clearly and with such delight in her subject that even someone with only the most rudimentary understanding of physics (like…ahem…me, for example) is drawn into the extraordinary things going on at the molecular level when people work with different materials.  Ploszajski went on a journey of literally hands-on experience of trying out different processes herself, and describes with humour and candour her frustrations and failures as well as her successes, and the range of interesting craftspeople she met. I particularly enjoyed the sensuousness of her writing – she evokes the textures and consistencies, the squishiness and crumbliness, sponginess or brittle fragility of different materials with the delight of a child playing with plasticine. 

It’s a very personal account of a journey which revealed to her all kinds of things about herself and enabled her to feel empowered to embrace who she is.  It’s one of the most unusual books I have read, uniting detailed but accessible science with a very intimate and engaging memoir, and Ploszajski is an impressive and endearing guide through this territory.

Two Turtle Doves: A Memoir of Making Things by Alex Monroe

In Two Turtle Doves: A Memoir of Making Things, jeweller Alex Monroe revisits a rural 1970s childhood spent making things out of whatever was to hand. His freedom to explore and improvise ignited his fascination with putting things together and led to his genius for design.


Palissy the Potter by Henry Morley 

In the 16th century, Frenchman Bernard Palissy developed a kind of ceramic ware that was like nothing previously seen, featuring naturalistic representations of animals and plants in relief (casts were taken from actual dead creatures), and bright pigments which he became expert in creating using a variety of plants and minerals. His work with ceramics led him to become expert in several scientific areas, and he lectured on related subjects including hydraulics and fossils.

His autobiography gives a warts and all account of his life; like many artistic master craftsmen, he was driven by an all-consuming need to find answers to the perennial questions thrown up by his processes and the desire to perfect them. His family suffered hardship as he sacrificed more lucrative work for a 16-year attempt to replicate the glaze of traditional Chinese porcelain. Palissy’s style of china became especially popular during the Victorian period, when it was emulated in the “majolica ware” style of iridescent colours, high shine and intricately detailed, heavily relieved designs. Palissy was a Huguenot and was persecuted for his Protestant faith; in 1588 he was imprisoned in the Bastillle prison, and died there of starvation two years later.


Bernard Leach Life & Work

Like Palissy, Bernard Leach was fascinated by traditional East Asian ceramics with their distinctive glazes and exquisite lines.

Shoji Hamada, A Potter’s Life and Work

Returning to Japan, where he had spent his early childhood, in 1917, he met potter Shoji Hamada; the two returned to the UK together, and for several years practiced Japanese firing methods and created wonderful work, inspiring a generation of artistic potters. 

A Weaver’s Life, Ethel Mairet 1872 – 1952


One visitor to his studio was Ethel Mairet, an Edwardian governess who married the Sri Lankan historian and expert on South Asian art Ananda Coomaraswamy at a time when inter-racial marriages were often met with bigotry. The couple spent five years in Sri Lanka, where Mairet studied local arts and crafts. On returning to England, Mairet taught herself hand loom weaving and spinning, developed vegetable dyes and became well known for weaving a mixture of weights and textures within the same fabric.  

Some craftsman starting from humble beginnings go on to oversee companies with iconic and world famous brand names.  One such is Luciano Ercolani – the shortened version of his name, ‘Ercol’, will be familiar to anyone interested in mid twentieth century design.

Ercolani’s impoverished family immigrated from Tuscany in 1898, when he was 10 years old. As a teenager, while working as a messenger boy, he learned furniture making at evening classes at the Shoreditch Technical Institute, located in what was then an important centre of the industry in East London; the Institute later became the London College of Furniture. At 18 he was employed by the Salvation army to make staircases and bannisters; four years later Frederick Parker, who went on to found Parker Knoll, another huge name in modern furniture, spotted his talent and invited him to join his company. Ercolani developed his fashionable mass-produced furniture after the Second World War, during which government orders, including for hundreds of thousands of tent pegs, had boosted his business.

The Autobiography of William Farish: The Struggles of a Hand-Loom Weaver

It is easy to sentimentalise craft, and of course many creative artists have expressed themselves through it, and many of us derive huge pleasure from our own spare time hobbies of making things. But the sad fact is that traditionally, men and women, and often children, creating traditional crafts as their livelihoods, were usually amongst the poorest and hardest worked members of society. William Farish began work operating a weaver’s bobbin wheel aged just 8 in 1826. Like many books in our special Biographies Collection, his memoir offers great insight into the hard life of a 19th century artisan.

Alongside this display, we will have a mini display of people from a range of places and periods, who all had birthdays in September. If you were a September baby yourself, come and see who shares that distinction!

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee – British and Commonwealth memoirs from seven decades

You can’t have failed to notice the media coverage of the fact that this year marks the Platinum Jubilee of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.  Her Majesty has become the longest serving British monarch ever. 

Queen Elizabeth II: A Photographic Portrait by Philip Ziegler

She was crowned in June 1953, but in fact became Queen upon the death of her father George VI in 1952 (the interval between her accession to the crown and her coronation was in keeping with tradition which requires such an interval after the death of a monarch). The quiet, restrained 25 year old was launched into one of the most important and high-profile roles in the world, and could not have known at that point that she would fill it for more than seven decades, until recently with her husband Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh at her side.

Elizabeth the Queen: The real story behind The Crown by Sally Bedell Smith

Britain and the world have changed beyond recognition since the beginning of her reign, which was dubbed at the time ‘the new Elizabethan age’.  Elizabeth II became sovereign of a nation still recovering from world war, when despite having a woman on the throne, married women still needed their husband’s signatures for any major purchase, homosexuality was illegal and recent immigrants from the Commonwealth faced intense organised racism, not least in our own borough of Kensington (Kensington and Chelsea were yet to amalgamate at that time).

Over the last seventy years society has been through huge changes, in Britain, in the Commonwealth and formerly colonised nations, and it seems almost incredible that our head of state has been the same person throughout this time, uniting generations as a reference point – our oldest generation still remembers her as a child addressing the nation on the radio and as a teenager contributing to the war effort, and emulated her glamorous fifties style in an era when female office workers were expected to arrive for work fully kitted out in mandatory hat, gloves and high heels.

Princess Elizabeth’s Wedding Day published by H.A. & W. L PITKIN LTD

Alongside her role on the world stage, as history’s dramas have played out, the Queen has also of course lived the life of an individual woman, and the nation has watched her experience the highs and lows of being the matriarch of a family that has had its fair share of drama, tragedy and scandal.

Our special Biographies Collection at Kensington Central Library contains around 150 biographies of Her Majesty, from quaint pictorial albums commemorating her childhood in the 1920s and 30s, to detailed and incisive biographies which place her in historical and socio-political context.  There is also an array of beautifully produced ‘coffee table’ books full of photographs from her extraordinary life.  For the month of June we will be displaying some of these in the lobby of Kensington Central Library, and you are welcome to come and browse through them; all are available to borrow. 

Alongside them, we will be displaying a range of memoirs of some ordinary people from throughout the Queen’s reign, with an emphasis on memoirs of our local area where possible, and with an additional focus on people writing about what it was like to experience some of the social cataclysms of their eras.  Come and read about the 50s through to the 00s and beyond through the eyes of a range of people from all walks of life in Britain and throughout the Commonwealth.

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

Biographies from the Basement: April 2022

Our colleague, Claudia is back with her monthly blog post about our special Biographies Collection at Kensington Central Library. Over to Claudia to tell us more –

Display at Kensington Central Library

During April we are having two displays of books from our special Biographies Collection. The first is to complement the wonderful exhibition provided for us by the Pilecki Institute: ‘Passports for Life’. This exhibition tells the fascinating story of The Ładoś Group – Polish diplomats who were involved in a rescue operation to help Jews escape the Nazis during the Holocaust. This exhibition of photographs, original documents and audio-visual displays will be on the ground floor of Kensington Central Library until Tuesday 31 May.

Fourteen Letters by Feliks Topolski

To give an insight into the contribution of Polish Jews to twentieth century culture before the Holocaust, we are displaying biographies of some leading literary, artistic and scientific figures including Sholem Asch, Feliks Topolski, Marie Rambert and Leopold Infeld.

A Day of Pleasure by Isaac Bashevis Singer

The leading figure in Yiddish language literature to date, and winner of the Nobel Prize in 1978, was Warsaw-born Isaac Bashevis Singer. No one documented the Polish-Jewish world with the detail, vigour and beauty that he did, and we have several wonderful books about him, alongside many of his best known novels.

A Contrary Journey with Jill Culiner event

If the history of Jewish life in Eastern Europe interests you, you may also like a forthcoming event on Tuesday 26 April at 6.30pm, when writer and artist Jill Culiner will be discussing her book A Contrary Journey, describing her travels in Ukraine and Romania, in the footsteps of Jewish Enlightenment poet Velvel Zbarzher. This is an online event; you can book your place on Eventbrite.

Display at Kensington Central Library

It is World Book Night on Saturday 23 April, and for our second Biographies Collection display this month we are homing in on some people whose lives revolved around books – but who were not necessarily authors. We have found an array of publishers, literary agents, book sellers, book collectors, editors, translators and general bibliophiles – and, of course, librarians. These bookish lives from throughout history and from around the world can tell us much about how books come into being, and what they mean to those who spend their days looking after them, preserving them and making them available.

The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell

Shaun Bythell’s memoir of running a second hand book shop in the Scottish town of Wigtown had me laughing out loud. In a dead pan style, Bythell documents the eccentricities of staff and booksellers and the highs and lows of serving a clientele of collectors, aficionados, the indecisive and bemused, the pedantic and demanding, and the endlessly browsing tourist. There is a serious point about the increasing challenge of eking out a living in this field, but Bythell’s caustic humour belies an obvious passion for his trade.

I remember the first time someone I knew ordered an obscure, out of print American book online, and awaited its delivery with excitement. I couldn’t believe that the internet made it possible to track down such books and have them drop through the letterbox. This has become commonplace (though still often very expensive – if it’s biographies you are looking for, don’t forget that our collection contains thousands of out of print and rare titles, including many published overseas).

84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

Before such things were dreamed of, Helene Hanff, in her flat in New York City, had no way to acquire the old English literary editions she loved other than to write air mail letters, and in this way she developed a correspondence with the manager of a Charing Cross Road antiquarian bookshop that spanned two decades.

84 Charing Cross Road was an address that became famous when she published her exchange of letters with Frank Doel in 1970 (her book was made into a film starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins in 1987). Any booklover who hasn’t already read this classic celebration of friendship and bibliophilia is in for a real treat – the bond that gradually develops between the reserved Doel and the ebullient Hanff is tender and moving, and the insight into post war life in the US and UK is fascinating. The fizzing excitement as Hanff unwraps the parcels containing her yearned-for editions of Austen and Donne, and the quieter but no less profound delight as Doel takes delivery of her grateful gifts of still-rationed treats resonates down the decades and reminds us of the importance of human contact and the ability of books to cement friendships.

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakof

New York City was also the place where Joanna Rakoff, in her early twenties, took up her first job as assistant to a literary agent in 1996. Her memoir My Salinger Year describes learning the ropes of the industry, at the same time as learning, in a whirlwind of coming-of-age insights rendered in lovely and witty prose, who she is and what kind of life she wants to have in the world of books. The title refers to the fact that the agency’s most illustrious client is the giant of American literature J. D. Salinger, by then in his late seventies. Knowing his reputation as an irascible recluse, Rakoff quails at the thought of encountering him – but his kindness and gentleness in their telephone conversations tell a different and irresistible story.

Caribbean Publishing in Britain: A Tribute to Arif Ali by Asher and Martin Hoyle

Arif Ali came to London from Guyana in 1957. In 1966 he began running a green grocer’s shop in Tottenham; because it was one of only a few places where Caribbean produce was available, it became a place where immigrants from the Caribbean would gather, and Ali began importing newspapers from their home islands. In 1970, Ali sold the shop to set up the publishing company Hansib, which became the largest black-run publishing company in Europe. For over 20 years he published three newspapers and two magazines, the most popular of which was the Caribbean Times. In 1997 Ali sold his newspapers to concentrate on books.

Hansib Publications has brought out hundreds of titles, showcasing writers from Britain’s Caribbean, Asian and African communities, and a range of books on the experiences and concerns of these communities. Ali has been an activist on many issues, and his contribution to making black British voices heard in the context of a ‘mainstream’ publishing industry that neglected them, has been immeasurable. We have a wonderful and quite rare book in our collection called Caribbean Publishing in Britain: A Tribute to Arif Ali by Asher and Martin Hoyles, which although it foregrounds Ali, also looks at other publishers who immigrated from the Caribbean and used their books to change and enrich British society.

So Much to Tell by Kaye Webb

Anyone who grew up in the 60s and 70s and enjoyed reading might find the name Kaye Webb rings a bell.  Webb, one of whose first jobs was to answer children’s letters to Mickey Mouse Weekly magazine in the 1930s (she was paid tuppence per response), was editor of Puffin Books, the children’s arm of Penguin, between 1961 and 1979, her name appearing on the flyleaf of many much-loved books.

This is often looked on as a golden age for children’s fiction, and Webb oversaw Puffin editions of classics like Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Clive King’s Stig of the Dump, Penelope Farmer’s Charlotte Sometimes and Rosa Guy’s The Friends as well as obtaining the paperback rights of earlier classics including Mary Poppins and Dr Doolittle.  In 1967 she founded the Puffin Club, whose members (‘Puffineers’) received a fortnightly magazine full of articles by leading children’s authors, and the chance to participate in quizzes and writing competitions, meet-the-author events, and links with other kids who loved reading.  The magazine thrived for over 40 years and at its peak had 200,000 readers, and its graphic design has become iconic.  Webb’s third husband was the artist Ronald Searle, best known for creating St Trinian’s and for illustrating Geoffrey Williams’s Molesworth books. 

A less well known, and still sadly topical episode in Webb’s life is that in 1960 she and Searle (who had survived a Japanese prisoner of war camp) produced Refugees 1960, a report on the situation of refugees 15 years after the end of the war, with text and pictures based on their travels to meet refugees all over Europe at the invitation of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

For those of us lucky enough to work with books, there are many ways that we experience looking after them and sharing them – but the best way to encounter them is still to browse amongst the shelves and find what you most want to curl up with, which might well be a biography to take you straight into another place and time.

Don’t forget our podcast Biography Central (formerly BioEpic), available on Anchor or wherever you get your podcasts. You can hear more about our special Biographies Collection.

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

Holocaust Memorial Day 2022: One Day

Every month or so, our colleague, Claudia takes a look at our special Biographies Collection at Kensington Central Library. It’s a collection of 80,000 books to which we add 1,000 new titles a year. This month, Claudia looked at our collection to mark Holocaust Memorial Day.

To mark  Holocaust Memorial Day on  27 January, each year the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust chooses a different theme to commemorate the Holocaust and the Cambodian, Bosnian, Rwandan and Darfur genocides. To mark it, we have displayed some of the many Holocaust memoirs from our  Biographies Collection in Kensington Central Library. This year the theme is One Day. 

I have chosen as one day to focus on, the 19 July 1943 and how it was recorded by some diarists of the Holocaust whose work is in our Biographies Collection. I have displayed excerpts from the diary entries for that day alongside the books. Diaries are a particularly intimate, immediate and powerful form of autobiographical record, and the youth of some of these writers (Anne Frank undoubtedly the most famous) as well as our knowledge of their ultimate fates, underlines their poignancy and power. I chose this date for personal reasons – it was the birthday of a dear family friend who was living through the Holocaust as a child at the time.

Holocaust Memorial Day 2022 book display at Kensington Central Library

Looking at this one day through the words of some of the memoirs reveals the geographical scope of the atrocity and the fact that it occurred over thousands of days, days which had sunrises and sunsets like any others, which were people’s birthdays and anniversaries, but on which the evils of hatred and bigotry violated the most fundamental human values, and which are rightly considered amongst the darkest in human history.   

Some of the diaires I looked at ended before 19 July 1943, because the diarist did not survive beyond that point. For those, I have chosen the closest diary entry to take an excerpt from. I am also displaying other biographies of Holocaust survivors, refugees, rescuers, witnesses and those who did not survive, and some general books on the historical background to the genocide.

Another key reason why I chose the date 19 July 1943 was a way of dedicating this display to a beloved friend, born in Prague and a resident of West London for the past 75 years. This day was her 10th birthday. Between the ages of 8 and 12 she was imprisoned in Theresienstadt and Auschwitz, where her family was murdered.

Most children who survived the Holocaust were those who had been taken into hiding before deportation or managed to leave as refugees. She was one of a tiny minority to survive the camps themselves, due to being used as slave labour rather than being murdered on arrival. As the defeat of the Nazi regime approached, she was marched to Belsen, from where she was liberated by allied troops. A relative who had emigrated to London several years earlier recognised her on a radio broadcast appealing for relatives of child survivors, and she came to live in London where she has led a full and good life and been dearly loved by her family and friends. 1.5 million Jewish children were murdered in the Holocaust, over 90% of Europe’s total population of Jewish children.

Antisemitism is currently on the rise across Europe. One of its most pernicious strands is Holocaust denial. It is thus extremely important that we read the records of those who experienced the persecution, and are moved by their testimony to fight bigotry and hatred.                                          

Inspired by Proust

One of the greatest French and European novelist of the 20th century, Marcel Proust, was born 150 years ago, on 10 July 1871. This post, by Zvezdana at Chelsea Library, is about ‘the madeleine moment’.

His masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time (A la recherche du temps perdu), also translated as Remembrance of Things Past, is generally viewed as an allegorical search for truth. It consists of seven novels, published between 1913 and 1927 (the last three books were published posthumously). During the war years, the author revised his novels, enhanced the realistic and satirical elements, deepened its feelings, and became determined, even obsessed, to finish his novels with the ultimate Time Regained (Le Temps retrouvé) before his death. 

Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust

The first volume, Swann’s Way, is one of the most distinguished novels of childhood. It starts with the narrator’s simple statement: ‘For a long time I used to go to bed early.’ It soon becomes clear that this man suffers from insomnia. He tosses and turns in his bed, falling to and from various levels of partial wakefulness and drifting on confusing gusts of memories that surface just for a few seconds, only to tease the sleeper. For a long time, when he lays awake at night and revives old ‘intellectual’ memories of his childhood in Combray, he thought that the past was lost, forgotten, flavourless. 

Those who fall asleep as soon as their head touches the pillow, they would probably agree with Alfred Humbolt’s observation, whose publishing company rejected Proust’s manuscript in 1913:  

I may be as thick as two planks but I can’t understand how a gentleman can take thirty pages to describe how he tosses and turns in his bed before going off to sleep.

Certainly, a reader does not need to be insomniac to appreciate and intensely enjoy Proust’s writing.  

Proust portrays an oversensitive boy and his impressions and memories of his family, friends and acquaintances, superbly brought back to life by the famous taste of a madeleine cake dipped into lime-flower tea. The novel is the story of Proust’s life, but not a simple autobiography. The way how Proust treats his main themes – the meaning of love and time – is what keeps the novel fresh and relevant to readers hundred years ago and today, alike. 

When he remembers Swan, his other friends and family members, from his childhood, it was not the same as what he knew and understood as an adult. Moreover, the people he was associated with, had also very different views about the same issues and other people. Their age, social status, gender – influenced and colour theirs and his perception, inevitably.  

A ‘real’ person, profoundly as we may sympathise with him, is in a great measure perceptible only through our senses, that is to say, he remains opaque, offers a dead weight which our sensibilities have not the strength to lift.

Proust’s question is how to discover the real meaning, how to filter the real memory from later made-up memories. The narrator involuntarily recalls an episode from his childhood after tasting a madeleine cake dipped in lime-flower tea.

No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin.

Suddenly, the years of closed, forgotten and forbidden events and memories are thawing away and reviving the real past, the truth.  

‘The madeleine moment’ – or Proust effect – became the most famous literary device in French literature. The expression ‘a madeleine de Proust’ describes ‘smells, tastes, sounds or any sensations reminding you of your childhood or simply bringing back emotional memories from a long time ago’.  

Inspired by Proust’s novel, I wonder if reading of a particular book has triggered something like ‘a madeleine moment’ for you?   Has a book affected you so much that whenever you taste a certain food or drink, that you are so vividly transported into the realm of that book?  

Inspired by Proust display at Chelsea Library

Some examples from library staff –

In Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ Pierre Bezukhov, as a prisoner of war, shares a potato and the whole philosophy of human existence with another man. How they appreciated every single morsel of that potato, has stayed with them. 

And in Anne Tyler’s ‘Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant it mentions ‘consoling pot roasts’ and stews ‘made with love’.  

Which book do you automatically associate with a special food or particular cuisine? And, after tasting that food, did you crave for more or you were quite disappointed?  

Authors such as Andrea Camilleri take specific care to add food and particular cuisine to their characters. Inspector Montalbano is the perfect example. Many Sicilian restaurants reinvented themselves by offering dishes mentioned in Camilleri’s novels – ‘Eat like Montalbano’. The author even created a glossary at the of his novels with useful explanations of Italian dishes. For example, the glossary in ‘The Sicilian Method’ described sartu di roso and spaghetti alla carrettiera. 

Food and wine inspired by one of Andrea Camilleri’s books

What about Robert Burns? If you are not aware, the Scottish poet is third in line after Christopher Columbus and Queen Victoria in the number of statues dedicated to a non-religious figure worldwide. Few literary figures convey more about nationhood than Robert Burns on the day of his birthday, 25 January, when Scots celebrate Burns Night – eating traditional haggis, drinking whisky and reciting poetry. And you do not need to be Scottish to celebrate.

Has a book affected you so much that whenever you taste a certain food or drink, that you are so vividly transported into the realm of that book?  

Twilight, Life and Death and Midnight Sun by Stephenie Meyer

Years ago, I always associated pomegranate seeds with Greek mythology – Persephone and Hades. However, after ‘Midnight Sun’ by Stephenie Meyer my connotations have been updated. For better or worse, apples also received a new makeover, adding her Twilight tinge to a previous combination of a biblical and fairy-tale image. 

Has a fictional character from a novel or film led you to try a particular food, to consume that martini ‘shaken – not stirred’ or even to buy (or dream of buying) a car they’re driving?  

Well, I almost choked on a spoonful of peanut butter after watching Brad Pitt in ‘Meet Joe Black’!

According to Crains’s Chicago Business newspaper:

James Bond has inspired sales of Aston Martins and BMWs with his super-cool onscreen wheels. Now a vampire who drives a Volvo is getting the attention of young drivers. Since the release of ‘Twilight’ in 2008, teens and young adults have been drawn to the Volvo C30, driven by the character Edward Cullen.’

According to one of our young readers, this is exactly what many of her friends did: 

I remember how right after the release of the first ‘Twilight’ film everyone was mesmerised by the film, but also by the classy new Volvo Edward Cullen was driving. At that time a few of my friends had passed their driving tests and wanted their first car to be ‘Edward’s car’ as they called it.’

What about smells and sounds? Do you imagine suddenly bumping into the Durrells while immersed in the music of the cicadas and the distinct scent of pine trees?  

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell

A few magical extracts from ‘My Family and Other Animals’ by Gerald Durrell which make me want to transport myself as quickly as possible to Corfu:

‘Spring merged slowly into the long, hot, sun-sharp days of summer sung in by cicadas, shrill and excited, making the island vibrate with their cries. In the fields the maize was starting to fill out, the silken tassels turning from brown to butter-blond; when you tore off the wrapping of leaves and bit into the rows of pearly seeds the juice would spurt into your mouth like milk. On the vines the grapes hung in tiny clusters, freckled and warm. The olives seemed weighed down under the weight of their fruit, smooth drops of green jade among which the choirs of cicadas zithered.

When the sun sank there was a brief, apple green twilight which faded and became mauve, and the air cooled and took on the scents of evening.

The sea was smooth, warm, and as dark as black velvet, not a ripple disturbing the surface. (…) Then suddenly the moon, enormous, wine-red, edged herself over the fretted battlement of mountains, and threw a straight, blood-red path across the dark sea.’

Roaming through Proust’s novel can easily lead us to the Belle Époque, to Parisian artistic saloons, to some of the most loved artists and famous expositions, to our own memories.  

‘It is a labour in vain to attempt to recapture it (our own past): all the efforts of our intellect must prove futile. The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) which we do not suspect. And as for that object, it depends on chance whether we come upon it or not before we ourselves must die.’

According to the general French view, everyone has their own ‘madeleine de Proust’ and the question is: what is yours? We’d love to hear them, so please do comment below.

Zvezdana, Chelsea Library

International Cat Day

Biographies from the Basement August 2021 – International Cat Day

August 8th is International Cat Day, when the British charity International Cat Care invites us to focus on the welfare of domestic cats and the efforts it has been making for over 60 years to promote cat health and combat neglect.  I have dipped into our Biography Store Collection to find out about some lives in which cats played a central role.


Anyone who has ever lived with cats understands how their idiosyncracies are woven into everyday life.  Marilyn Edwards and her husband shared their Cumbrian cottage with a series of cats and her descriptions resonate with love and delight.


The Irish playwright and journalist Hugh Leonard documented his life with cat companions with similar tenderness and humour, as did former MI5 operative Derek Tangye, who left a glamorous life amongst London’s intelligentsia to experience seasons full of plants and animals in remote Cornwall.  The landscapes of that county were also vital to Helena Sanders, who was active in Cornish politics, though it was far from those rugged shores that she made one of her biggest contributions to animal welfare; in Helena Sanders and the Cats of Venice, Frank Wintle describes how she set up a shelter for stray cats in that beautiful city.  In The Cat who Looked at the Sky, Thea Welsh describes how the seemingly sensible arrangement of sharing cat ownership with friends came up against the real demands and foibles of a trio of strong willed cats.


You don’t have to observe even the most cuddly of domestic cats for long to be reminded of their relationship to their wild cousins, the big cats of Africa and Asia.  Known for many wildlife TV documentaries, zoologist and photographer Jonathan Scott has lived amongst the lions of Southern Africa for over 40 years.  In The Big Cat Man, he describes getting to know a pride of lions intimately as they go about their lives. Big cats also stalk the pages of Tippi Hedren’s The Cats of Shambala - I knew Hedren as the glamorous star of Hitchcock films like The Birds and Marnie;  I had no idea that her passion for lions and tigers led her to spend years making the film Roar (1981).  Coordinating large numbers of wild cats, many members of the cast and crew sustained serious mauling injuries, including Hedren herself.  She set up The Roar Foundation to look after the film’s animal cast, and the Foundation’s Shambala Preserve in California, described in this memoir, is still home to several lions and tigers.

  Sometimes, a subtitle of one of the books in the biography store is intriguingly surreal – this is certainly the case with John S. Clarke: Parliamentarian, Poet, Lion-tamer by Ray Challinor.  Clarke, one of 14 children in Victorian Jarrow, was still a teenager when he worked in a circus training the lions which were still a staple of circus entertainment at the time, before going on to a career in politics, serving as Labour MP for Glasgow Maryhill from 1929 to 1931. Given how fierce the atmosphere of the House of Commons can be, I imagine his experience of training lions must have given him some useful skills for managing it.  

Finally, let’s turn to some memorable fictional cats, and to the artists and writers who created them.  The animator Oliver Postgate will forever hold a special place in the hearts of those who grew up in the 60s and 70s, as the creator of The Clangers, Ivor the Engine and other favourites.  In 1974 he brought us Bagpuss, the soporific, stripy, endlessly benign and unflustered cat whose waking from sleep brings all the toy occupants of the little girl Emily’s shop to life, and Postgate’s memoir Seeing Things is as enchanting and fascinating as you might expect. 

Kathleen Hale, whose widowed mother worked as a travelling salesperson, was fortunate in having her artistic talents spotted by a teacher.  She went on to join the artistic scene in London during the First World War, working as Augustus John’s secretary and socialising with the Bloomsbury set.  Her children’s book Orlando’s Evening Out (1941) was the first fictional picture book to be published under the Puffin imprint, the children’s arm of Penguin, the then less than 10-year-old publishing house which was to transform access to books for the general public.  It featured Orlando the Marmalade Cat, who starred in a total of 19 books spanning almost 40 years, and her exquisite auto-lithographic technique, by which the artist hand-layers overprinted colours to create chromatic blends, are typical of the period. Her wonderful autobiography is modestly entitled A Slender Reputation; she published it at the age of 96, and died at 101.

“The Painter of Cat Life and Cat Character” is an apt subtitle for our beautifully illustrated coffee table biography of Henriette Ronner, as the 19th century Dutch-Belgain painter brought out the singular identities of all the cats she rendered against the silks and velvets, polished wood and well-stuffed upholstery of bourgeois domestic interiors – her feline subjects are so vivid that you feel you could reach out and touch them.


   Colette is one of the most important figures of French literature, and throughout her work her love of animals and particularly cats is obvious – though she never sentimentalises, and renders nature in all its light and shade, ambivalence and cruelty.  The pedigree Chartreux Saha of her novella The Cat (1933) must be one of the most disconcerting cats in literature, sidling elegantly through the early married life of two young people, inspiring both hypnotised devotion and primal jealousy.  We have many wonderful books about Colette in the collection – her My Mother’s House and Sido is perhaps the best introduction to her masterly handling of animal and human relationships.

In the last few years two books about cats by Japanese authors have been enormous bestselling hits: Hiro Arikawa’s The Travelling Cat Chronicles and The Guest Cat byTakashi Hiraide. Eighty years earlier, their compatriot the great Junichiro Tanizaki, often considered the greatest modern Japanese novelist, wrote the unforgettable A Cat, A Man and Two Women. Tanizaki was a literary genius and his memoir Childhood Years brims with his characteristic sensitivity and texture, describing the day to day life of a well to do family in late 19th century Tokyo.

   I couldn’t pursue the cat lover’s trail through the collection without pausing at the shelf where many books on Beatrix Potter are to be found.  She was originally a local, born in Bolton Gardens (a stone’s throw from Brompton Library) in 1866 and is of course famous for the beautifully painted and characterised animals of her 23 “Tales”. She depicted cats with the same detailed naturalism and sympathy she brought to all her animal subjects – Tom Kitten was always my favourite (he has his own tale and also features in The Tale of Samuel Whiskers) and her other feline creations were Miss Moppet, and Ginger who runs a shop with her friend the terrier Pickles in The Tale of Ginger and Pickles.


Claudia Jessop, Kensington Central Library.

Don’t forget to check out our podcast BioEpic, in which we delve into fascinating lives through our Special Collection of Biographies. Available on Anchor, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Breaker and Pocket Casts.

Books we love…

Marcovaldo, by Italo Calvino

Book cover of ‘Marcovaldo’ by Italo Calvino

As it’s Plastic-Free July, our book review blog will be the title ‘Marcovaldo’ by Italo Calvino.

This week, Richard from Brompton Library will be reviewing Marcovaldo, by Italo Calvino. Marcovaldo is a collection of Italian stories talking about the beauty and the ugliness of both the countryside and the city.

Over to Richard to tell us more!

“If you’ve ever seen the film, Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot, you might recognise a similar lyrical style that is both poetic and comical in Marcovaldo. The character of the title is an Italian redneck labourer from the provinces with a love of nature, who moves to a large northern industrial city with his family.

The book comprises a collection of stories/chapters that follow this family through the seasons of the year. In the Forest on the superhighway for example, the family go in search of firewood, only to find billboards on the edge of the city; in the night, the short-sighted highway police officer confuses snatches of the family sawing through the panels with the billboard images and assumes they are part of the advertisements. Another story captures Marcovaldo’s reaction to the city transformed by winter snow.2

If you want to try out this unique and compelling read, pick up Marcovaldo today from one of our branches or via ebook –

https://trib.ent.sirsidynix.net.uk/client/en_GB/rbkc/search/results?qu=Marcovaldo&te=

Plastic Free July logo

Books we love…

This month is Plastic Free July, helping to promote the need towards eradicating plastic pollution so that we can have cleaner streets, oceans and beautiful communities.

To mark this important occasion, Montse from Victoria Library will be reviewing ‘This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, which won the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize in 2014, Canada’s most prestigious award for non-fiction!

Over to Montse!

‘This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. by Naomi Klein

At the question of: Is it possible to have a green Capitalism? Naomi Klein has a clear answer, and it’s a resounding NO. Klein disguised the myth of capitalism and urges us to rethink our economic and political system. This is an important book that position the debate in the right angle: Earth against capitalism.

We cannot longer deny the disastrous consequences that the depletion of our planet has brought us; droughts, torrential rains, virus, raising see levels, desertification, storms, fires and so on, the list is innumerable. Klein faced us with the biggest threat that humanity has ever experienced: our own survival as species.

This changes everything is a vast book of 572 pages, Klein invites to re-think the economic system that support the current political strategies in relationship to the planet resources and is leading us to disaster: “our economic system and our planetary system are now at war”, it’s time to take your side.

‘This Changes Everything’ can be borrowed from our catalogue in multiple formats including ebook, e-audiobook, and in hard/paper copies too. Click this link to find out more –

https://trib.ent.sirsidynix.net.uk/client/en_GB/rbkc/search/results?qu=this+changes+everything&te=

Have you read the title? Let us know what you think in the comments below.